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Obama Call for Drilling Before Spill Faulted by Panel

U.S. President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama takes questions after speaking at a Coast Guard base in Panama City, Florida in August. Photographer: Dan Anderson/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama should have consulted with more advisers on science and the environment before backing expanded offshore oil drilling, the heads of a panel investigating BP Plc’s Gulf of Mexico spill said.

Obama failed to vet the drilling proposal with Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, before proposing more drilling in March, the two officials said today in testimony before the presidential commission studying the spill.

Obama dropped the plan, which would have allowed drilling off parts of the Atlantic Coast, after BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off the largest U.S. oil spill.

Presidents of both parties have failed to solicit advice from enough experts before making decisions such as the offshore drilling plan, said Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida who is co-chairman of the commission. Congress should require greater consultation with government scientists and environmental advisers, said Graham.

“If you’re developing a policy to expand offshore oil and gas exploration to the extent that the president announced, then the agency with responsibility for oceans management and regulation and your overall umbrella agency, the Council for Environmental Quality, would be two of the people on the consultation list,” Graham said.

President’s Proposal

Obama proposed on March 31 drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. East Coast while scrapping development in Bristol Bay, Alaska, part of an effort backed by the Interior Department that he said would boost energy independence and protect the environment.

“The proposed plan that the administration put forward followed extensive outreach over many months, including nearly 500,000 comments from the public, numerous public meetings around the country, and input from states, tribe and other federal agencies,” Kendra Barkoff, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

The proposal would have permitted exploration in the Atlantic Ocean from south of Delaware and, if a congressional moratorium is lifted, in the Gulf of Mexico 125 miles (201 kilometers) off the west coast of Florida.

‘I Cannot Imagine’

“I’m an alumnus of CEQ, and I cannot imagine that a decision would have been taken while I was there that would not have involved my boss,” said commission co-chairman William Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator. “I’m disappointed that the Council on Environmental Quality particularly, which is in the heart of the Executive Office of the President, would not have been included in a decision of that sort.”

Sutley told the panel the environmental council considered the drilling decision the responsibility of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“We weren’t asked and wouldn’t expect to be asked ahead of time what level of environmental analysis is appropriate for the kinds of planning and decisions that resulted from that March announcement.”

Lubchenco told the commission she wasn’t directly involved in reviewing the drilling plan so “I was not in a position to be formally approving or disapproving” it.

NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said in an e-mail that his agency’s greatest concerns were dealt with in the plan Obama announced because “new drilling leases in the Arctic and the Aleutian Bay were halted.”

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